A lighthouse always invokes nostalgia in me. Standing all alone, facing the oceans hurling itself at land with ferocity, always warning of dangers at hand. I always wonder at the bravery it took the early ocean-farers to face the unknown. Although lighthouses have been around for ages – at least before the 3rd century BC, most explorers would have run blind at first.
MacDonnell Lighthouse – Courtesy of the Port MacDonnell Maritime Museum
Port MacDonnell, South Australia was first visited by the explorer Lieutenant James Grant on 3 December 1800, but it was not until 1860 that is was proclaimed as an official port and named after Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell who was governor of South Australia at the time. In the 1880’s it was one of the busiest ports in Australia. Wheat and wool were the main products shipped from here.
South Australia is the site of more than 800 known shipwrecks, so it was a natural progression to put up lighthouses along its notorious limestone coast. Tenders were called for and Birtwistle and Sykes won the contract and they completed the lighthouse and keepers cottages at the end of July 1857 with a cost of $3674 (a lot of money for that time). It was only 28 feet (about 9 meters) high and stood on a small rocky headland, 30 meters above sea level, at the southernmost point of South Australia.
It was found that the site was exceedingly exposed to the rough seas and wild winds of the southern seas and a sea wall was built on three sides to protect the lighthouse keeper. The wall was 1.5m tall and 35 cm wide. The light was officially in operation on the 1st of January 1859 and manned by Benjamin Germein.
The “catatrophic” light (concentrated into one beam), fueled by whale oil, did one rotation a minute and had 3 colors, red, green and white. The white light could be seen for 28 km, the red light for 24 km and the green light for 12 kilometers. They exhibited in succession. The lighthouse also had a small cannon and Marryats flags to warn ships standing too close to shore.
Only 23 years later the ever pounding seas starting claiming back the land on which the lighthouse stood. So in 1881 a new first class light was built further inland. The old lighthouse was demolished in 1882. The lantern was transferred to the Cape Banks lighthouse.
When standing at the wooden lookout, you can still see remnants of the sea wall, which will soon also be claimed by the very thing it was guarding against – the sea.